This time, dammit, she was going to vote no matter what.

She was waiting on the bench at the bus stop a half-hour early. The bus stopped just past the bench and Waterloo saw on the back a pasty, pink, grinning man with perfect teeth shouting in a cartoon bubble, VOTE! IT’S YOUR RIGHT! IT’S YOUR DUTY! As Waterloo made her way to the bus door she mumbled, “Sure thing, you old fart.”

DEMOCRACY BY JOHN ALLISON 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 75


Waterloo was on hold. Had been for 12 minutes. Eight to go before break was over.

“County clerk’s office. May I help you?”

When someone finally spoke on the other end Waterloo had just swallowed a chunk of ham sandwich. She choked a hello.

“Yes, mam, I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to vote. I used to know, then they, you know, the assholes—oops, sorry, didn’t mean to say that—the, uh, the guys in charge decided they were playing poker and shuffled the precincts willy-nilly. I looked at the new map, and I’m right on a line.”

“Poker?”

“Never mind.”

“Address please?”

“2819 Laurel.”

“Is that in Pearce, Forrest Hills, Western Hills, Wheatley, Lakeview, or—”

“Wheatley.”

“Hold please.”

This was all just one city, and you’d think that sensible people would treat it that way. But no. There was a central city, Pearce, and a bunch of incorporated burbs almost the same size that sprang up not long after, when cars came along in the 20s and 30s. Some poor, some middling, some rich. Some mostly pavement that blistered shoeless feet in summertime, some mostly dirt, some with carefully trimmed trees and manicured grass way too thirsty for the droughty climate, automatic sprinklers sending cascades of clean drinking water down the gutters beside stately homes.

You knew, she thought, where the soccer moms were to be found—the ones who drove SUVs the size of Waterloo’s apartment and had swinging blonde ponytails, gleaming teeth, perky tits, and perfect bottoms that were in the same place as when their owners had been 16. Nothing wrong with being a soccer mom, or looking good, but still…

“Is that West Laurel or East Laurel?”

“Oh, East.”

“You know you can vote early at a couple of places not too far from there.”

“You can’t if you’ve got my boss. Only on election day.”

“I see. Hold please.”

Waterloo looked at the clock. Four minutes.

Then two.

No one on the other end, but Waterloo said, “Got to go.” And did. She would try again tomorrow.

The mop awaited. Waterloo had insisted on an old-fashioned mop of densely packed cotton strings and she mopped the way she’d been taught when she was nine. The galvanized-steel bucket they gave her had a mop squeezer on the rim, but the thing left the mop dripping and made more of a damned mess than it cleaned up, so Waterloo made the mop just the right dampness with the hands that could strangle a politician if the opportunity ever arose.

You have to use detergent, wash out the mop real good, then go back over the floor using clean water, with some Lysol or ammonia in it. If you don’t, you’re just pushing the damned filth around on the floor.

After Waterloo had been on the job a few months, Mimi, who started out cleaning but now managed personnel and doubled as office manager, watched her as she did an office. Apparently impressed with Waterloo’s slow but sure mopping, the supervisor found a way to get Mrs Morris to cut some slack on Waterloo’s quota. That Mimi had persuaded the old lady who owned the company to back off a little led Waterloo to wonder whether she’d used up all the credits she thought she’d earned by keeping Mimi’s three kids a few times. Waterloo had figured out that Mimi needed help because her shiftless husband Delbert had been required to pay a little time-debt to the county. Maybe he’d go back in soon for a PI, DUI, pissing in public, or disturbing somebody’s peace, so Waterloo could build up a few more chips for cashing in later.

Tomorrow Waterloo would be working at another office building—Mrs Morris had the contracts for a half-dozen high-rise structures downtown. Waterloo had reason to call in and speak with Mimi occasionally, and Mimi would answer, “SkweekieCleen,” followed by “It never leaves a smudge.” Waterloo was sure that the wrinkled old Mrs Morris could afford a smart lawyer, and a marketing somebody, so she knew they could do better than SkweekieDamnedCleen.

Waterloo had been 12 when they lost their little home to what was called urban renewal, or, as cousin Thaddeus had once said, urban goddamned fucking over the poor renewal.

Mama inherited the house from her mother, and the mortgage had already been paid off. Nights and weekends, Mama had fixed it up herself. It had been a good neighborhood, most residents thought, without much crime. Except for some of the older ones who lived on social security and pension checks, all of the people worked and supported themselves.

Most of the houses were well-kept, but some of them needed a bit of paint, the yards weren’t much to look at, and quite a few old junkers were up on blocks.

People got along, though, and you could get help if you needed it.

The State legislature had given cities the power to take a neighborhood like theirs and sell it to developers who gentrified it. This was judged to be a “public purpose” by the Supreme Court. The city council just had to label it as blighted, as defined by the developers who held lots of sway with the State and with the local government where Mama and her daughter lived. The newer houses were far larger and property taxes skyrocketed. None of the older residents could afford to live there and they had to move to the outskirts, as did Mama Ruby and Waterloo.

Long friendships were severed. Waterloo lost her many school friends, including her two besties, Maybelline and Tonya, and, of course, impossibly cute Jonathan, on whom she had a deep crush. Neither mother nor daughter knew a soul in their new neighborhood. Everything got harder.

So Mama Ruby became an organizer, or as the politicians called her, a rabble-rouser, writing editorials, calling reporters, and launching campaigns and protests. After two more election cycles, four city councilmen were tossed by voters, a couple of women and two men of color taking their places as the voter base expanded and diversified. Waterloo watched and learned.

In the mid-70s Mama took Waterloo along to a march for full enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in their recalcitrant State, the first-grader having screamed resistance before becoming caught up in the grown-ups’ fervor. And Mama dragged her along to get-out-the-vote phone banks and made her listen.

Waterloo had always done well in school but Mama made her spend extra time on classes about history and government. Made sure both of them had library cards and used them regularly.

Later, Waterloo had always studied the elections and cast her ballot whenever she worked for someone who didn’t make it nearly impossible.

Just before the general election two years before, after she had worked at SkweekieCleen six months, Waterloo called the office to ask about time off to vote. Then, as now, the voting was for Congress, the highest State offices, State legislature, and local things—judges, sheriff, and the like. Mimi had been out sick, and Mrs Morris answered the phone.

Waterloo’s request was met with stony silence, followed by, “You know, I support your people, Doris.” Then more silence.

“It’s Waterloo. Boling.”

“Oh. Yes. Uh, Waterloo. Uh, Boling. Yes. Anyway.”

What the devil did that even mean? What people? As far as Waterloo could tell, she had the same number of legs, arms, toes, and fingers as the old lady. And ears, nose, what have you. Whatever it meant, what did it have to do with voting? She decided she wouldn’t want that old woman on the jury if she ever strangled the fat, red-faced bus driver who had sped away more than once just as she approached from 30 feet away, moving as fast as any skinny grandma with hips full of premature arthritis could possibly go.

Waterloo hadn’t made it to the polling station last time, even though it was not far from home and she knew exactly where it was. She wasn’t going to jeopardize her job.

Still feeling awful about not voting, she told Marvin about Mrs Morris. She told him that this time, dammit, she was going to vote no matter what.

Marvin tended the grounds around the apartment building. Those grounds were mostly dirt and pavement that didn’t need a lot of tending, but Marvin kept the weeds down and watered the few runty trees and shrubs. Occasionally trapped rats, even killed a copperhead or rattler now and then. He took on other odd jobs too, when he could find them.

Waterloo found Marvin to be kind, and a little conversation with him revealed that he was far from the dumb old man one might surmise from first glance.

She had him up to her place for coffee and cake one Sunday afternoon. Upon hearing her complaint, he said how State law required that employers give their people up to three hours off for voting on election day. It was a law, he said, that had been passed decades earlier when State lawmakers actually wanted working people to vote.

So she brought up the matter to Mimi a month before this election. It turned out that both Mimi and old Mrs Morris knew about the law, but left it up to workers to find out for themselves.

Waterloo asked Mimi if she could start work at 11 instead of eight on voting day, and received a grudging okay and a reminder that the law allowed time off but not paid time off.

Later, Marvin told her that it was only States in the northeast and on the west coast that made companies pay people for voting time. And a few in the upper midwest. How did Marvin know stuff like that?

She wondered what else was in that head of his, a head that looked like a skull stretched over with ancient scuffed leather, but from which emerged a steady stream of knowledge and wisdom. And sweetness. And he never smelled bad, at least not around her.

Though Marvin was at least 10 years older than Waterloo, she found herself wishing she had met him at that dance so long ago instead of Winston, a decent man who could hold down a job and didn’t holler or hit, but one with a head like a brick who smoked and drank himself to death at 35, leaving her with a girl and a boy to raise by herself.

Waterloo had met a few men since then, but none was even close to acceptable and she was too tired, anyway. She was not, however, so old that stirrings never occurred. And Marvin had begun to look sort of cute.

She didn’t object when Marvin called her Loo, as did her son-in-law, granddaughters, and a few friends.

Her boy Thomas called her Moms, which she didn’t care for but tolerated.

Tommy had gotten a good job way off in Chicago upon graduation from the Art Institute, where scholarships had enabled him to go. After he phoned her about the new job, she had wondered why in the world somebody would pay him for designing graphs. She knew what the things were and what they were used for. But, still. Then Tommy explained what a graphic designer did.

As far as names went, Waterloo much preferred the one her mother had written in CAPITAL LETTERS on the birth certificate, Mama Ruby having given birth while taking a night course at the local community college about Napoleon. Waterloo was not a name old Napoleon Bonaparte number one would have wanted to hear, she supposed, but he wasn’t around to have any say-so.

Waterloo had been reading a lot about the upcoming elections, either at the library or on her fancy new phone. President not up for grabs this time. Waterloo had missed that one, and just look what we got. Good Lord Almighty!

Now she was interested in voting against the incumbents in both her congressional and State legislative districts, as well as the governor, lieutenant governor, State attorney general, and some other privileged, primitive pale-males who wanted to take the State and the entire country farther back into the dark ages than they already were. Whenever she thought about them, she wanted to spit and throw down a shot of Jim Beam. Or two shots. If she could spare the money for a bottle, that is. She would have to save up.

From talking to Marvin, she knew that her vote probably wouldn’t count for much when it came to the federal and State assemblies, but she should would put it in anyway.

The voting districts had been redrawn causing folks in her area who thought mostly as she did politically to be outnumbered by their polar opposites a hundred or even two hundred miles away. She again felt an overpowering urge to spit cotton, and did.

Waterloo called the county again.

“County clerk’s office. May I help you?”

“Yes, mam, I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to vote next Tuesday.”

“Address please?”

“2819 Laurel.”

“Is that—?”

“East Laurel. And it’s in Wheatley.”

“Hold please.”

Waterloo looked at the clock. She could hear background chatter on the phone. A conversation. Two women talking about people who didn’t know where to vote. It went on. Waterloo hoped that after their tomcatting both their sugar daddies would forget to come home that night. Reconsidering, she thought maybe that was too harsh for the offense, so she just hoped that someone would smear their toilet seats with Vaseline. Every night for a week.

The clock ticked inexorably. After a while, the background conversation ceased.

“You said Pearce. Right?”

“No, it’s Wheatley.”

“Hold please.”

“Listen, lady, I got—”

Waterloo looked at the clock again.

Then, “Did you say East Laurel? And Wheatley? Or was it—?”

Waterloo hung up and returned to work.

On the third call someone else answered, and darned if she didn’t apologize when Waterloo explained what had been happening. Within a few minutes Waterloo had what she needed, and made sure to get the girl’s name so that she could find a way to give her a shout-out. Somebody needed to bottle little Carla’s attitude and make all government employees drink it every morning for their coffee break.

It was Friday. Election Day would, naturally, be Tuesday. Why Tuesday? When everybody had to work? Why not Sunday? Or Saturday?

On Saturdays she had to work only half the day. Renee and Sasha tagged along with her to the job. They were in fourth and sixth grades, and Waterloo was not about leave them with Arthur, her son-in-law. His hours at Amazon weren’t always regular, and Waterloo treasured her time with the girls.

Even the pretend-grownup Sasha still enjoyed going to the park they could reach on Sundays by transferring buses, both girls gleeful even on the 40-minute trip. The girls’ grandma came away from the whole thing full of an effect resembling that of the pills she’d taken for three days after carpal tunnel surgery.

The four hours Waterloo worked on Saturdays—she had no choice about it—paid time-and-half and added $51 a week to her check. The money from Saturday work was all positive, because it didn’t push her above any lines—the $17,000 without overtime was already way above the State’s twelve-thousand-something food-stamp limit for a single person.

She was grateful the girls had their daddy. Arthur was a good man. Kind of limited—couldn’t read all that well, but that was because he never had books at home and nobody ever encouraged him. His folks thought he was dumb. Waterloo figured he just had some problem seeing letters and words correctly on a page.

She had seen him figuring out answers to Sasha’s sixth-grade math homework in an instant and silently mouthing them to Waterloo. Didn’t give Sasha the answers though. Made her work through the problems.

Waterloo had concluded early on that he was good to his children, didn’t hit or scream, didn’t drink except for a couple of beers now and then. And he worked hard.

Robyn, now, that was a different story entirely. Waterloo tried not to think about her too much, feeling guilty when she did. How did she let her beautiful girl get on that stuff? Waterloo hadn’t known the signs, hadn’t known what to look for. Not something she had ever known anything about. Got pregnant at 14 by somebody, again at 16 by Arthur. Got hooked at 17. Girl been away over three years now for dealing. Arthur married her anyway, and he managed on his own. Said he didn’t want anybody else, and was waiting for her to come home.

Waterloo had asked Arthur if they could take his old truck and go vote together. Told him about the law giving them three hours off, but he said he hadn’t gotten around to registering.

There wasn’t any automatic registration when you got a driver’s license or anything like that, and you had to show more kinds of ID than Arthur could come up with.

Besides, he said, law or no law, the only way he could get any time off without getting his pay docked or worse was to show up hacking blood.

On Sunday before the Tuesday election, Waterloo and Marvin were talking again over coffee. And brownies this time.

“I never told you any of this, Marvin, but Daddy was gone a lot when I was a kid. When I was 14, I think, after we had to clear out of our old neighborhood, he just flat disappeared. Mama waited a few months then divorced him. A year after that she met Alvin who worked where she did then. They got married. When I was 16, nearly 17, damned if Mama didn’t have my baby brother, Noah, when she was about 40, maybe older.

“Noah was a good kid, pretty smart. He was out with a couple of buddies, cruising around. A cop stopped them. They swore they hadn’t done anything wrong. No speeding, nothing. The cop didn’t even say why he stopped the car. White cop, white neighborhood.

“My little brother, well, he mostly behaved himself but he could be a smart-ass sometimes. Had a mouth on him. He was 17, you know. In the front seat next to the driver. Asked the cop if he stopped them ‘cause they were driving while black. Noah told me the officer’s face looked like he was getting a damned enema with a fire hose. Made all the boys get out. They were flat-out scared to death.

“Searched them. Noah didn’t do drugs, maybe pot every once in a while. And wouldn’t you know it? Cop found a little bit of a joint. It was mostly gone, just a stub, Noah told Mama and me. I don’t think he was lying, but you never know. He was a kid. Cop took all three of them in, booked them on possession. Couldn’t afford a lawyer, neither could we. They got one appointed, and pretty quick he took a plea deal for them.

“Noah, he was treated as an adult, got two years. Was out in one, but he was just, you know, pretty screwed after that. Got his GED, but couldn’t get a decent job for a long time. Finally borrowed some money, got into a program. Got trained to be an electrician’s helper. Took him years to get an electrician’s license and make decent money.

“He does fine now, but it was tough. Might’ve gone to college. He was bright enough. You can probably guess how I always doted on that boy. Still do, in his thirties. He’s got a family now. He’s a good man. But I never forgot.”

Marvin’s eyes saddened. “Damn, Loo, didn’t that idiot jailhouse lawyer know ‘bout probable cause? There was no damned reason to stop those boys. Some judges’ll toss out a charge on their own when they see this, but some won’t. They drew the wrong one.”

Waterloo continued. “This guy, Owen Westerfield, wants to push a bill that makes small amounts of weed legal, or, at most, just get a ticket like it’s a traffic violation. Says it’s safer than booze. Nobody gets mean on grass, he says. Says people with a little, you know, not enough to be a dealer, have no business getting arrested. He’s running for legislature in this district. Got to vote for that guy, Marvin.”

Waterloo’s eyes popped wide awake at the clanging of her pint-sized Big Ben. She flipped the switch of her Mr Coffee. She had to catch the 5.45am bus that would drop her within several blocks of the polling place at the Townshend branch library. There would be a line and she wanted to be near the front.

She was waiting on the bench at the bus stop a half-hour early. The bus stopped just past the bench and Waterloo saw on the back a pasty, pink, grinning man with perfect teeth shouting in a cartoon bubble, VOTE! IT’S YOUR RIGHT! IT’S YOUR DUTY! As Waterloo made her way to the bus door, walking carefully along the sidewalk to avoid the large cracks and stumbling and falling on her face, she mumbled, “Sure thing, you old fart.”

Waterloo took her place in line half a block from the library entrance 20 minutes before the 7am start. An hour later the line hadn’t moved. Word was passed along from the front of the queue that the voting system was down and there was no paper backup.

Waterloo’s feet hurt and her hips ached mightily. Standing is not like working. Standing for an hour or so is the kind of thing the CIA seemed to enjoy making people do at Guantanamo.

Since Tommy had bought her the smarty-pants phone the previous year with a limited plan she could squeeze out of her pay each month, Waterloo had been reading about all sorts of stuff. History, for one thing. She had learned to admire Abigail Adams and her son John Quincy, a terrible president because he was too smart and, Waterloo concluded, too crotchety. And she read about politics until her brain hurt.

Then she developed a fascination with whatever she could find about genetics, medicine, and the intricacies of the human brain. So, when bad words began forming in her brain, she decided to will her DNA to refrain temporarily from sending any instructions to the part that operated vocal chords.

In one of their sit-downs over coffee and whatever Waterloo had baked, Marvin explained how the voter ID rules had changed since she last went to the polls.

She had let her driver’s license expire after the Oldsmobile Delta 88 died eight years earlier. It took half a day to apply for a license at the State public safety office if it was expired, and 10 more days for it to come in the mail. Naturally, that office wasn’t open outside of M-F 8-4 because of funding cutbacks. In a wealthy State with a booming economy.

Thinking it would be quicker, she had gotten a State-issued ID with her picture on it, which a person who couldn’t get or didn’t want a driver’s license could acquire as a substitute, but that ended up taking as long as getting a license to drive.

Waterloo had updated her voter registration card by going in person to the county clerk’s office. It cost her half a day’s pay.

She wished she could do mail voting but she was nearly 15 years away from being old enough to vote by mail. And Waterloo didn’t qualify for absentee voting now—wouldn’t be out of the county during the whole period from early voting through Election Day, wasn’t in the military, and wasn’t disabled though she sometimes felt like she might be when she got up in the morning or ran after the bus.

At two long, light-gray vinyl tables on folding legs placed end to end, part-time workers checked IDs and directed people to the voting machines.

“Good morning, mam. May I please see your documents?” His hair was gray, face tanned and wrinkled, eyes kind. He reminded her of one of her favorite teachers back in school.

“You know, the ID rules have changed in the past few years.”

“Yes sir, my friend Marvin explained that to me, and I did some reading on it, too. And I’ve got my last utility bill in here.”

“The utility bill used to work, mam, but now we’ve got to have two different picture IDs.”

Waterloo nodded, fished around in her shoulder bag, and handed him the voter registration card and two IDs.

“Registration is fine, Ms Boling, but I’m afraid there’s a problem with the IDs.”

Waterloo looked at him quizzically and recalled how the portly old farts in the legislature had gotten their panties all in a wad over voter fraud, or at least fraud was what they said, even as studies showed it was almost nonexistent.

She still had a picture ID from her job with the college that had no expiration date. Somebody forgot, she supposed, to ask her to turn in the ID when she left that job. Problem was that the school had used her full middle name, Theresa. So that one ID card said Waterloo Theresa Boling, whereas the State one said Waterloo T. Boling.

That wouldn’t work now, the poll worker said. He mumbled that he’d enjoyed helping out at the polls but it wasn’t fun any more and this would be his last time.

Waterloo thanked him, turned around and walked back to the bus stop. She would just barely get to work before the end of her three hours.

The next Sunday she again talked with Marvin over strong black coffee and the chewy oatmeal raisin cookies she had baked.

“Sorry, Loo. Forgot to tell you about the exact match thing. The two IDs have to show exactly the same information—name, address, and such.”

“Yeah. Got to get another ID. Somehow.”

“You could get your driving license again.”

“They won’t let me have both that and the other State-issued card.”

Then Marvin allowed as how Waterloo could get on with the school district or the county, or even with a State agency. Those all issued IDs with photos.

“I could do that, I guess. What you been using, Marvin? I know you’ve got a license to drive that old truck of yours. But what else? You voted this time, right?”

“Sure did. Last week. The State cut the time for early voting in half, down to a week, but I made it there. They also stopped the rolling polling, you know, the vans that drove around from place to place where folks could vote. And, you know, Loo, you have to vote next time or they’ll yank you off the voter roll. Something new they’re doing.

“You could get a driving license that says the same thing as the college one. Practice a little with my truck if you’re too rusty. I’ll pick up a copy of the book for the written test. It’ll all come back to you fast.”

“Maybe so, maybe so. You could even help me find some old thing I could afford to drive. You know, it’s got to be old, old for me to buy it. Have to pay in installments.”

Marvin nodded.

“I’ll get that license before elections come around again. But the State does it different, the name, you know, different than the college ID. What about the other ID? What do I do?”

Marvin looked away. Pretended not to hear her. Waterloo waited. Handed him another cookie.

“So? MARVIN?”

“Loo, well, I know this guy. He’s awfully good at these things. You just can’t tell the difference between it and a real city contractor’s license.”

Waterloo’s eyebrows slowly creeped higher as her lips parted slightly and began to turn up at the corners.

Then she followed Marvin’s gaze to a small table upon which sat a vase bursting with glorious orange Asian lilies. Turning back to Marvin, she saw him grin sheepishly.

“Yeah, Marvin. Yeah.”

JOHN ALLISON

I’m a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. I’ve published in intellectual property law, especially empirical studies of the patent system. I began writing fiction only a few years ago. My stories have been published in Mount Hope, The Wagon, Forge, and the 34thParallel Magazine.